Houston quickens pace of Harvey recovery as new storm threatens U.S.

Vince Ware moves his sofas onto the sidewalk from his house which was left flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

By Gary McWilliams and Daniel Trotta

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Houston area residents picked up the pace of their recovery from Hurricane Harvey on Tuesday, jamming roads as they returned to offices and schools to help get the nation’s fourth largest city and its vital shipping and oil industries back on track.

The region is getting a boost from Mexico, which sent volunteers to shelters and is preparing to send relief supplies in the next few day. Mexican Red Cross workers were staffing shelters in three Texas cities. “We are more than glad to be helpful,” said Gustavo Santillan.

Large employers, universities and transit services reopened or began full schedules on Tuesday, with floodwaters receded and the Labor Day weekend behind them. But not all of the Houston-area’s 6.6 million residents were in position to go back to work and were dealing with home repairs and waterlogged possessions.

“It feels surreal to be back at work,” said Hannah Smith, 31, who spent part of her day putting office furniture moved ahead of the storm back in place “It is one step in the direction of whatever the new normal is.”

Harvey tore through Corpus Christi in southern Texas on Aug. 25 before churning up the coast and hitting the Houston area especially hard. The storm killed as many as 60 people, dumped more than 50 inches (127 cm) of rain and caused damages estimated as high as $180 billion, including to 203,000 homes.

Oil refineries, pipelines and shipping channels in the nation’s energy center have begun a gradual return to operations. Exxon Mobil on Tuesday said its fuel terminals in the Houston area were supplying gasoline and it continues to work on reopening a shuttered Baytown oil refinery. Motiva Enterprises [MOTIV.UL], operator of the nation’s largest refinery, said it is in the process of restarting operations at its Port Arthur, Texas, plant.

Some industry stalwarts were still out of commission though. ConocoPhillips closed its Houston headquarters through Sept. 11. BP’s Houston campus suffered severe flooding and remained closed. Portions may be out of use until December, Chief Executive Bob Dudley told Reuters. About 650 of BP’s more than 5,000 Houston area full-time staff reported damage to their homes.

“I’ve got to get work done but I don’t think it’ll be a productive day,” said Daniel Semetko, 60, a Houston energy company worker, citing the number of people who were out of their homes due to storm damage.

With extensive property damage across the region, local and federal prosecutors formed a task force to investigate reports of home repair fraud and people posing as police to facilitate theft and other crimes, officials said. About 80 investigations into complaints were underway, said David Green, a Department of Homeland Security special agent.

Houston’s school district, the nation’s seventh largest, remains closed this week to repair flooded schools. The district has said about 75 of its 275 schools suffered major or extensive flood damage, but other school districts in the area and major universities were open for class.


As Houston picked up the pieces from the devastation of Harvey, a new and even more powerful hurricane was headed for the Caribbean islands, the U.S. East Coast and Florida.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma, which it upgraded to a “potentially catastrophic” Category 5 storm, was about 130 miles (210 km) east of Antigua on Tuesday afternoon. Hurricane warnings were issued for Puerto Rico, Antigua, Montserrat, St. Eustatius, the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Port operations along the Texas coast that service the area’s oil and gas companies returned to work. At the last three of 28 Texas coast ports still closed to ship traffic, the U.S. Coast Guard said it was monitoring water currents for when shipping might resume.

U.S. gasoline prices fell on Tuesday as traders priced in a continued restart of flooded Gulf Coast refineries. Benchmark U.S. gasoline futures were lower by about 4 percent, returning to levels last seen before Harvey made landfall.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder, Catherine Ngai and Ron Bousso; Editing by Bill Trott and Tom Brown)

Fierce and deadly Hurricane Matthew heads to Southeast U.S.

Hurricane Matthew is seen over the Bahamas in this infrared image

JUPITER, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, slammed into the Bahamas on Thursday and intensified as it barreled toward the southeastern United States after killing at least 39 people, mostly in southern Haiti, on its northward march.

Matthew, which displaced thousands of people in Haiti, smashing homes and inundating neighborhoods, was predicted to strengthen from a Category 3 to 4 storm en route to Florida’s Atlantic coast, making landfall there on Thursday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

A view of destroyed houses in Jeremie.

A view of destroyed houses in Jeremie. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The center extended its hurricane warning area farther north into Georgia and more than 12 million U.S. residents were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.

Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached, carrying with it strong storm surges, heavy rain and sustained winds that accelerated overnight to about 125 miles per hour (205 kph).

The damage could be “catastrophic” if Matthew slammed directly into Florida, Governor Rick Scott warned, urging some 1.5 million people in the state to heed evacuation orders.

“If you’re reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the people who have been killed,” Scott said at a news conference on Thursday. “Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast and we’re going to have hurricane-force winds.”

A storm surge of up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) was expected.

“Do not surf,” Scott said. “Do not go on the beach. This will kill you.”

The four U.S. states in the path of the hurricane, which was 215 miles (346 km) southeast of West Palm Beach at about 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), declared states of emergency, a move empowering their governors to mobilize the National Guard.

It was too soon to predict where in the United States Matthew was likely to do the most damage, the Hurricane Center said.

Downtown Miami is pictured in this aerial photo as clouds begin to form in advance of Hurricane Matthew in Miami, Florida,

Downtown Miami is pictured in this aerial photo as clouds begin to form in advance of Hurricane Matthew in Miami, Florida, U.S. October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Shelters in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were opened for evacuees. Federal emergency response teams were coordinating with officials in all four states and stockpiling supplies, President Barack Obama said.

Schools and airports across the region were closed on Thursday and some hospitals were evacuated, according to local media. Hundreds of flights were canceled in and out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Florida, industry website Flightaware.com said early on Thursday.

Matthew was heading northwest at about 12 mph (19 kph) and was expected to continue on this track on Thursday, turning north-northwest on Thursday night, the National Hurricane Center said. The eye, or center, of the storm was expected to pass near Andros Island and New Providence in the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday.

In Nassau, the Bahamas capital located on New Providence, it was raining steadily on Thursday morning and high winds were bucking palm trees. Minor damage to roofs was reported but there was no flooding yet or reports of injuries.


On Tuesday and Wednesday Matthew, the strongest hurricane in the Caribbean since Felix struck Central America in 2007, had whipped Cuba and Haiti with 140 mph (225 kph) winds and torrential rain, pummeling towns and destroying livestock, crops and homes.

The devastation in Haiti, where officials said on Thursday at least 35 people were killed, prompted authorities to postpone a presidential election.

In Florida, fuel stations posted “out of gas” signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up.

Some residents prepared to wait out the storm and stocked up on water, milk and canned goods, emptying grocery store shelves, local media said.

Residents and business owners boarded up windows with plywood and hurricane shutters and placed sandbags to protect property against flooding.

“All boarded up and ready to bunker down. God be with us,” West Palm Beach resident Brad Gray said in a Tweet.

Scott said he activated 1,000 more members of the state National Guard on Thursday morning, bringing the total number of those summoned to 2,500. Another 4,000 stood ready to respond if needed, he said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Neil Hartnell in Nassau and Laila Kearney; Writing by Laila Kearney and Frances Kerry; Editing by John Stonestreet and Bill Trott)